He was speaking only for his weary and rumpled self, speaking in the singular, sorrowful tones of someone who just lost a boss and friend of more than three decades.
But, in one poignant moment while publicly mourning the death of Lakers owner Jerry Buss on Tuesday, Mitch Kupchak could have been speaking for every Lakers fan.
“Just knowing that he was there was a good feeling to me,” said Kupchak, the Lakers general manager. “And he’s gone now.”
Just knowing Buss was there was a good feeling for everyone, and the fact that he’s gone now has instantly become the most frightening development of the modern Lakers era.
Buss was the Lakers’ voice. Who will become that voice? Buss was the Lakers’ conscience. Who will carry that burden? It was Buss’ unique vision that brought the Lakers 10 championships. Who is watching the store now?
Mitch Kupchak, who is your boss?
“I report to Jimmy Buss,” he said.
Moments later, a reporter sitting in the back of the cramped conference room at the Lakers’ training center shouted for a clarification sought by many.
“Did you say Jimmy or Jeanie?” the reporter asked.
“Jimmy,” Kupchak said.
Get used to it. The mourning period will last at least through Buss’ private memorial service Thursday, but attention has already been focused to the potential front-office mess in his wake.
Where the Lakers were once one kingdom led by a single benevolent leader, there are now two territories run by potentially feuding siblings.
They are Jeanie’s Lakers, and they are Jimmy’s Lakers, which means, right now, they are nobody’s Lakers.
“Don’t think for a second there’s not an adjustment period,” Kupchak admitted. “You lose a father or you lose a leader like Dr. Buss ... there will be changes, and there will be an adjustment period, but I don’t anticipate a problem.”
There will be no problem if Jerry Buss left a clear succession plan that would delineate lines of power and allow the family to operate the team without constant controversy.
He was such a brilliant businessman, here’s guessing he probably already thought of that, and here’s hoping such a plan is eventually made public.
But, until then, there exists only a framework that doesn’t seem workable.
Jeanie Buss, Jerry’s oldest daughter, controls the team at league meetings as its designated governor while, internally, she is in charge of the Lakers’ business operations.
Jimmy Buss, Jerry’s second-oldest son, controls the team’s basketball operations.
They are siblings with vastly different styles, philosophies, temperaments and ideas. Their Lakers paths rarely cross, but when it happens, there is great potential for nasty collision. In recent months, they have reportedly been at odds over Jimmy’s treatment of Phil Jackson — Jeanie’s live-in fiance — during the hiring of Mike D’Antoni.
When asked how the pair work together, Kupchak started to answer and then smartly stopped, saying, “I think they communi- ... That’s a question for them, to be honest with you.”
Kupchak acknowledged that he had seen Jimmy leaving meetings to text or phone his sister. He said he has seen them interact on decisions and that it’s not as awful as everyone thinks.
“Not to say everything is perfect all the time, but I’ve been with them on decisions, and sharing information, where they’ve communicated and worked very well together,” Kupchak said.
But then he stated the truth that has helped these Lakers run so well for so many years — “We’ve always had one voice,” Kupchak said.
The one-voice culture needs to continue. And, it’s clear, that voice needs to belong to Jeanie Buss.
This is not another rip job of Jimmy, a basketball novice who has been criticized for everything from his countless baseball caps to his three bad coaching choices. Jimmy has his father’s strong beliefs and bold spirit, attributes that will desperately be needed by this organization in the coming months of change. But Jimmy has been around the team only for several years, and his relative inexperience is a poor complement to his stubbornness, which has led to several bad decisions.
This is, instead, about the coronation of Jeanie, who has helped build the Lakers into a billion-dollar entity with her tough stance in boardrooms and soft touch with the fans. She has spent her adult life being groomed for this moment, following her father through many of his businesses. She now runs the entire Lakers business empire, doing everything from guiding top assistant Tim Harris in securing the landmark Time Warner Cable television deal to helping design the recent championship rings.
More important than her vast Lakers knowledge is that she knows what she doesn’t know. She knows she’s not a basketball person. That’s why Kupchak is there. She would give one of the league’s best general managers the complete freedom to remake the Lakers in Jerry Buss’ image.
“Yesterday was an empty day, I couldn’t seem to find a place where I was comfortable,” Kupchak said.
After the loss of the greatest owner in the history of professional sports, it could be a long while before Kupchak or any Lakers employee can return to that place. The ability to cite Jeanie Buss as their boss, without need for clarification, would be a good start.